From the Newsrooms: January 8 to 13, 2024

Pushback against Cha-cha campaign

THE IDEA had been simmering but it broke out for all the public to think about when House Speaker Martin Romualdez took up the need for Charter change (Cha-cha). He  recalled two resolutions that had raised the issues earlier in 2023, saying the amendments would focus on economic provisions, the same areas that President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. wanted reviewed to attract more foreign investment.

Speaking at the Philippine Economic Forum in Iloilo on December 11, Romualdez also revealed that the House was open to a “people-centered initiative” as a mechanism for constitutional amendments – which would bypass the question of whether the House and Senate can pursue amendments through joint or separate votes. 

Albay Representative Edcel Lagman claimed that some Bicol Region representatives from the supermajority were already starting a signature campaign for Cha-cha. Media reports cited his statement on January 6 that some members of the House supplied “mobilization funds” and forms for local officials to collect   signatures. A people’s initiative requires at least three percent of their voting constituents. Signatures allegedly cost PHP100 per person. 

Denying Lagman’s claims, Ako Bicol Party-list Representative Alfredo Garbin Jr. told the media that Albay mayors themselves started gathering signatures on their own, adding that funds were available only for transportation and other logistical expenses.

Senator Imee Marcos echoed a similar allegation on January 9, saying she received information that mayors were offered PHP 5 to 20 million worth of projects and financial aid from the Departments of Health, Labor and Social Welfare in exchange for signatures of their residents. Officials of these agencies have denied any involvement in the signature campaigns, stressing that support for Cha-cha has never been a prerequisite to receiving aid.

In an interview with CNN Philippines’ The Source on January 12, Senator Marcos said she received a text from an unknown contact before Christmas about a detailed timetable for a so-called “Project PI.” The calendar that Marcos saw targeted a plebiscite by early July this year.

Rappler reported on January 13 that the signature campaign has been going on in different parts of the country, citing confirmation from Kabataan Party-list, progressive people’s organizations, and from representatives and local chiefs themselves. Among those cited in news accounts was Davao City Mayor Paolo Duterte, who warned his constituents against signing the petition for a small amount of money. He claimed the people’s initiative being campaigned for was not a reflection of public sentiment but “the voice of a few who wanted to perpetuate themselves in power.”

TV Patrol, 24 Oras, Frontline Pilipinas and News Night all found residents who either signed the petition because of the supposed promise of financial aid, or did not due to insufficient explanation of its contents. These reports included a clip of a video provided by the Quezon City Urban Poor Coordinating Council, which showed a volunteer for an unidentified representative telling residents that their signatures would entitle them to aid from the DSWD. For her part, Quezon City Mayor Joy Belmonte said there was no prior coordination with her office regarding the signature campaign.

News accounts said they tried getting reactions from Romualdez himself, as well as the Palace, but did not receive any. 

Meanwhile, media also reported the Cha-cha initiative of People’s Initiative for Reform Modernization and Action (Pirma), a private group that had already pushed for charter change in the past. This time, group made news for having aired ads for amendments. The tagline “Edsa-puwera” triggered such a wave of criticism and complaints on social media even before print, TV and online news reports had picked up on the campaign. 

Noel Oñate, national convenor of Pirma, told that his group only wanted to make people aware of the issue, denying that they paid anyone to provide signatures. However, Oñate also admitted to ABS-CBN that their goal was to “dilute the Senate vote.”

The current movements indicate an ambitious and seemingly well-coordinated plan for constitutional revision. Funding is a key issue here, and journalists should be alert to the use of public funds for such a campaign. Reports have gathered enough evidence of mobilization through LGUs. So far, the probable misuse of public funds and the offensive propaganda launched by Pirma have provoked well-deserved backlash and has set back once again a meaningful review of the charter. The parties and individuals engaged in this recent effort have only themselves to blame. 

The resistance to constitutional amendments is rooted in the danger of opening up the constitution to wholesale revision so political groups can keep their positions in power. The issue is a lack of public trust in those who gain power. Filipinos should bear in mind that few have stood out for the virtue of recognizing the limitations of political office, taking care not to abuse the power given them by the people. The public must understand that amending the Constitution is no simple task, and that blindly signing petitions is tantamount to signing away our future to uncertainty.